One has to admire the tenacity of Team Ninja. Off the back of Ninja Gaiden’s success, their first attempt at a direct Soulslike, Nioh, was a middling success. Successful enough to warrant an improved sequel, but still a drop in the ocean of many in the sub-genre. Not to be put off, they’ve joined with Dynasty Warriors veterans Koei Tecmo to offer us Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty.
Another retelling of the ancient Chinese fable, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Wo Long is Souls through and through. Challenging enemy gauntlets, over the top boss fights, grind and levelling up accordingly. But rather than obtuse lore, Wo Long tells its tale in typical Musou/Chinese theatre fashion: elaborate cutscenes.
A bright and beautiful attempt, does this put Team Ninja back up in the annals of hard games that its Ninja Gaiden reboots were famous for? Or is it another lost Soulslike, doomed to be relegated to the many other imitators. Let’s find out…
It’s Your Dynasty, Warrior
Whilst comparisons are inevitable to Koei Tecmo’s massive melee extravaganzas, the story they’re based on is even more of a fertile ground for new seeds to grow. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a 14th century spin on the Han dynasty of old, is one of China’s greatest pieces of fiction. However, it’s too vast to waste half a review on, so here’s a summary: wars, clans, lords and feuds and some fictional elements spruced in to spice it up.
But much like Nioh, Team Ninja have added the mystical too. Dragons, magic, insane acrobatic combat and then some, otherwise you’d be playing a visual novel. Speaking of you, the player, are a nameless warrior caught up in the conflicts. Saved from death from a meant-to-lose opening fight, your hero’s journey begins in the war-torn lands of Dongshan.
From that point, Wo Long follows a loose adaptation of certain parts of the story, meeting a who’s who of popular characters along the way. If it sounds like I’m being disrespectful to the source material, it’s not intentional. I know someone like Toby or Miles would be in heaven here but hey, they aren’t reviewing it.
What I did enjoy, however, were the friends we made along the way…
Well, Lu and Bu-Hold
Yes, I should be shot for that header but honestly, Lu Bu’s name is usually the most synonymous with Dynasty Warriors. That’s my tenuous segue, I’m going with it, considering Zhao Yun’s the first character you come across.
Instead of comparisons to Dark Souls (like many others will), Wo Long holds more similarities with Japanese counterpart Nioh. Unlike cryptic lore and withholding information, here it’s all cutscene exposition, loading screen text and a smattering of “famous” characters steering you along the way for… revenge, I think.
Again, if you know your warriors of dynasty lore, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when they pop in for cameos. They act as the player’s voice, as it were, yelling about what’s going on when a burnt out village is discovered. They’re also very needy when they fall in battle, but that’s for later.
One of key factors of any action game, be it Souls or Devil May Cry, is its combat. It can really break a game when it looks good but handles poorly. Fortunately, Team Ninja have a strong record with fighting systems, with Wo Long being no slouch either.
There are no classes to pick here, just preferred styles of weaponry. Players start with a single sword, but in time will progress to polearms, cudgels, staffs, twin swords… if they want to. I was getting pretty proficient with a single sword, but that’s because I’m a veteran Sekiro player (and clearly modest about it). I mention that because the combat is right up my street here too.
Whilst there are blocks and dodge rolls for the cautious type, Wo Long favours the bold. To whit: getting stuck in and deflect the shit out of everything.
When combat flows, it shows. Blending regular attacks with parries/deflects to weaken an enemy’s spirit gauge (their posture, if you will) before dealing a highly damaging Spirit Technique is beautiful. That sounds corny, but it really is satisfying to act out your greatest Wushu fantasies.
Like any game that errs on the harder side, it’ll take a while to get used to. Learning enemy attack patterns, their critical moves and whether to block, deflect or dodge all are par for the course. Is it frustrating at times? Yes. Is it absolute bullshit when an enemy cheap-shot’s you and you totally pressed parry? Definitely. But is it fun when it clicks? Oh yes.
And that’s largely in part to it not just being weapon-based combat.
Sword and Sorcery
Drawing this time from their Ninja Gaiden staples, Wo Long features special moves and elemental-based magic. As well as a base for levelling up, the elements of earth, water, fire, metal and wood (don’t ask) also manifest as spells and attacks.
Physical special attacks are mapped to R1 and a face button (on PlayStation), whilst spells are on R2. Physical attacks are weapon type dependent, so a polearm will be more a thrust than a sword’s jumping slash, for example. With short cooldowns, these can be woven into combos (but can be interrupted) easily.
Spells, on the other mystical hand, can manifest as projectiles, shields or even passive skills that siphon vitality on attack. For me, I started with learning an offensive fire blast to keep distance if needed. Again, it can be interrupted but comes in handy in a pinch.
Then, as a little coup de grace, there are the Divine Beasts. Attack enough, or hit the equipped beast’s criteria, and these will be ready for summoning. This can manifest as a one-off special attack, or an assist in battle depending on which summon input is used. It sounds like a lot of skills to get your head around, but trust me, it all adds to the fluidity of battle.
There’s no “builds” as such, but your avatar can be molded to a degree with the equipment, weapons and spells you like to steer them towards a specific offence/defence type.
The Beauty of a Battlefield
If you’re old, like me, you might remember how crisp the 2004 Ninja Gaiden reboot looked. Or, if you’re a Koei Tecmo fan, how impressive a Dynasty Warriors battlefield looked, even on a PlayStation 2. Well, Wo Long is no slouch in that department either, thankfully.
Environments look beautiful, moving from lush fields to dusky, burnt-out villages and green valleys as the story moves on. Cutscenes are as sharp and frenetic with battles, not once slowing down as I washed sword clash and magic cast during them. Characters all look… well not realistic, but an accurate portrayal of the legendary heroes they’re meant to be. Again, you Romance of the Three Kingdoms buffs will recognise your favourites.
Audio is pretty crisp too, with weapons reacting to attacks and blocks, magic spells filling the ears with fantasy and fun in battle. The dialogue is pure “We shall avenge the fallen” levels of cheese, but it’s a Chinese fable. Of course it’s all going to be elaborate.
Wo Is Me
In regards to complaints or criticisms about Wo Long, I don’t really have many. That’s not to say it’s a “perfect game” or whatnot, but the good outweighs the minor niggle or two. However, there are one or two things that do stick like a pip in a tooth.
The first and most egregious one: stop with the whole “just one more hidden enemy” trick. We know there’s one behind the door, immediately trying to rug pull us with a cheap shot on the next gets tiresome. Second, on par with this: putting archers/projectile enemies high and out of sight is cheap. It’s not for me not casing ahead, they will literally be out of camera sight and deal high damage before you’re in a position to retaliate.
In regards to how it plays, the only control issue I’ve come across is movement feels… floaty. Like it feels you’re moving the player marker rather than their feet. It can make the platforming fiddly, but it’s not a terrible burden to overcome.
The elemental Rock, Paper, Scissors deal is a little trite. The game tries to make it sound like a big thing, but like secondary weapons in Sekiro, it can largely be ignored when you get the combat down pat. These aren’t major gripes, if anything more a personal couple. Overall, Wo Long outshines with its main tenets that the ancillary stuff isn’t inconvenient.
To Wo Long, Thanks For Everything
To summarise, Wo Long is yet another take on the blend of Soulsborne and action-adventure we’re seeing more of now. Souls is still the primary focus, but both Koei Tecmo and Team Ninja have brought their fast-paced action chops to the table here. Does it reinvent the wheel? No, but it adds some sick alloys and makes it faster and prettier.
It does try too much at times with some convoluted systems. Fortitude ranks based on how many flag-based checkpoints, losing some on death and gaining more during momentum, is more contrived than it needs to be. It can be largely ignored, if one is just focused on the action.
The story is large and convoluted, especially if you have no Three Kingdoms/Dynasty Warriors background. I don’t, and I still can’t tell you what’s going on several bosses in. Something about Yellow Turbans, I think. However, don’t let that be a deterrent. There’s enough text dump and character/enemy pages to bring players up to speed. As I said earlier though, it’s a Chinese epic. Don’t expect to digest it all in one go.
But at its core; an action-adventure Souls-like, Wo Long is a step beyond the subpar offerings like Lords of the Fallen and Thymesia. It hates me because it loves me: it kicks my ass again and again but the gameplay loop is so smooth I can’t help but persevere. That it looks gorgeous running on PlayStation 5 with no tears or lagging is a testament to the craft.
If you need that Souls itch scratched and want a new spin on a Chinese fable, then Wo Long should be your next port of call. Remember: deflect over dodge and you’ll feel like a god.
A beautiful take on the ancient Chinese story, Koei Tecmo and Team Ninja have joined forces to create something magical. Wo Long is a tour de force, with its only issue being that it tries too many new things that will largely be ignored. At its core, it’s a solid Souls take and gorgeous game to add to an action fan’s library.
Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty is available now on PlayStation 4 & 5 (reviewed on latter), Xbox One and Series S|X, and PC via Steam.
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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